Civil Rights Groups Seeing Gradual End of Their Era

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands outside the Southern Christian Leadership Conference office in 1967.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands outside the Southern Christian Leadership Conference office in 1967. (By Benedict J. Fernandez)
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By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 5, 2008

Forty years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, the storied organizations that propelled the modern-day civil rights movement alongside him are either struggling to stay relevant or struggling to stay alive.

In Atlanta, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) -- which was founded in 1957 after Alabama's Montgomery bus boycott and was led by King through the most difficult days of the movement -- clings to life. Three years ago, utilities shut off the lights and the phones when the group did not pay its bills.

In New York, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which helped shape the movement's philosophy after adopting Mohandas K. Gandhi's doctrine of nonviolent protest, is scarcely known outside Manhattan. CORE conceded that it now has about 10 percent of the 150,000 members it listed in the 1960s.

In Baltimore, the near-century-old NAACP, which tore down racial barriers with deft lawyering in the courts, recently cut a third of its administrative staff because of budget shortfalls. For decades, the NAACP asserted that it was the largest civil rights group, with about half a million dues-paying members, but one of its former presidents recently acknowledged that it has fewer than 300,000.

Some groups have disappeared, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which organized the Freedom Rides that drew sympathy to their cause and which was later led by firebrands such as Stokley Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. Others, such as the National Urban League, remain viable but have diminished visibility.

"They don't really exist now," said the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a former interim director of the SCLC, who spoke with pain in his voice. He added: "They're just names. There has been so little activity from so many of them. SCLC rose from the dead, but we're not so certain life has been blown into it yet. And the NAACP is vital, but they're not doing what I'd expect."

The groups' decline has been slow but inexorably driven by factors both within and outside their control. They were the subjects of government spying and harassment. A proliferation of black organizations with niche audiences -- lawyers, engineers, accountants, journalists -- took away middle-class members. The rise in the 1970s of groups such as the Black Panthers, which espoused a melodramatic militancy, made them seem tepid.

Some activists say that the more traditional civil rights groups may be victims of their greatest successes: the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of the mid-1960s. Those laws paved the way for an exploding number of African American politicians who seized a share of the leadership. Today, radio deejays, Internet groups such as Color of and organizations such as the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights are orchestrating bus rides, marches and other actions once performed by civil rights groups.

As the groups were drained of power, they sometimes hurt themselves. CORE's most charismatic liberal leader, James Farmer, resigned and was replaced by a conservative. The NAACP fired an executive director in 1994 for using its money to settle a sexual harassment suit against him.

And for decades, the groups did not employ more sophisticated marketing and membership tools used by other organizations, such as AARP and the National Rifle Association.

"Not enough of us had recognized change," CORE Chairman Roy Innis said. "We were spoiled by the heyday of the civil rights movement, where attention came whether we recruited or not."

Others involved in the groups are critical of their status today.

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